The Who Hits 50 Right on the Bullseye

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Pete's windmills still thrill/Photo by Daniel Carney

Pete’s windmills still thrill (Photo: Daniel Carney)

Words (almost) fail me. But my emotions provide the gut-check confirmation on what I just witnessed. I am indescribably blissful. Bowled over by the power and majesty. A wee bit (good) tearful. Deep faith restored. So incredibly grateful that the men who wrote and sang the words “I hope I die before I get old” did not.

At Austin’s Frank Erwin Center on April 27, 2015, the sixth date of the first leg of what I now pray will not be their last American tour, The Who raised the bar of rock ‘n’ roll greatness to the most heavenly of heights. And proved that mature men playing matured songs of youthful rebellion, confusion and lust plus existential angst and spiritual yearning can span the group’s 50 years with all its due musical and creative fullness not just intact but thrillingly alive and kicking serious butt like no other band on the planet.

Yes, The Who were that utterly awesome and then some. I expected them to make this legacy anniversary magnificent. But what they delivered soared far beyond my highest expectations.

Joan Jett and her latest crew of Blackhearts set the stage perfectly with a concise set of wham, bam, thank you ma’am rock ‘n’ roll, coming off her Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction (with her original Blackhearts) with guns blazing, loaded for bear and dead-on aim. Launching her set with the title track to her 1980 debut album, “Bad Reputation,” Jett hasn’t changed her basic style that much since then, and that’s not a bad thing at all. Instead she’s just gotten stronger and more assured in delivering her trademark meld of punk, glam, hard rock and pop hooks, and as a singer who can fully deliver a song in a way where every feeling and lyrical accent is drenched with sincerity, realness and utterly sexy finesse.

The 11-song set touched all the right bases: two Runaways songs (“Cherry Bomb” and “You Drive Me Wild”); her big ticket numbers like “Do You Wanna Touch Me (Oh Yeah),” “I Love Rock ‘n’ Roll” (which ginned up a hearty audience singalong) and a splendidly dynamic “Crimson & Clover;” and a few cool mid-career and more recent songs.

After she hammered her mastery home with the closer, “I Hate Myself for Loving You,” I had to wonder: If the Foo Fighters can fill arenas, why isn’t Jett doing so on her own? Her songs are stronger and she exudes far fuller personality. She was right on time on arrival 35 years ago and hasn’t fallen out of time since then. It’s now more than time for her deserved big time. Because Jett doesn’t just rock; she is rock personified.

Touch me, heal me/Photo by Daniel Carney

Touch me, heal me (Photo: Daniel Carney)

Okay, I know the doubts and cynicism regarding what some call “The Two” or “The Who Minus Two” or whatever, have had them myself. I last saw them 35 years ago at this very same venue on a visit to the city where I now live. Keith Moon was taken away; Kenney Jones of The Small Faces/Faces was now on the kit. It was a great rock ‘n’ roll concert if only a middling Who show. When John Entwistle passed I felt The Who should just knock it on the head. How wrong I was.

That was evident from the first bars of “I Can’t Explain,” a little less angular than some 50 years ago and a bit more bopping. After jumping forward through “The Seeker,” with Roger hitting the “highee” notes with panache, and then a shimmering “Who Are You,” it was clear that this is a band on a mission with some serious points to prove.

And a band. By now, my deep love for and loyalty to Moonie and the Ox be damned, the core of Roger, Pete, Pino Palladino, Zak Starkey and Pete’s brother Simon Townshend are The Who. And playing as a real band should, not just rendering the material but performing the songs in ways that all varied a bit from what we know to make them as fresh and urgent as ever. It was a sound and sight to behold with a sheer unadulterated joy.

From early on, Townshend didn’t just play his parts; he burrowed into what he’d written and played years before and found new dimensions. At one point he noted how as it was Austin (a city where you can hardly spit without hitting a musician), there were many guitarists hehe who play better than he does. (He also said something similar a few days before in Raleigh. But in the city where Stevie Ray Vaughan and his brother Jimmie, Eric Johnson, Gary Clark Jr. and so many others make the place America’s guitar town, the point is as salient as it can be.)

But no one plays like Pete, weaving lead lines and windmilled rhythm power chords together into an endless high-power wire at the core of each song. And hey – who wrote these incredible compositions that travel from transcendental to tough, eloquent to primal?

Roger rules!/Photo by Daniel Carney

Roger rules! (Photo: Daniel Carney)

Zak Starkey is a stunning powerhouse, keeping the top of the kit simmering like Moon (his early drum mentor and godfather) while mightily swinging the beat like his dad Ringo. He was born to bring the rhythmic vigor and drive to The Who.

No one else could have stepped into Entwistle’s shoes as Pino Palladino did in 2002, and by now he lives in them, has made them his own, keeps that wonderfully melodic lead bass filling in the spaces, never showboating even as he plays with stunning intricacy. He’s now so much a part of The Who they gave him those three key notes in the intro of “Baba O’Riley” originally played on piano.

Simon Townshend may stay in the shadows, but he’s the guitar glue that helps it all congeal seamlessly. And the three tour keyboard players – John Corey, Loren Gold and Frank Simes – played almost as one, note perfect on every number.

And then there’s Roger, God bless him, singing from the bottom of his soul, playing acoustic guitar here and there, magnetic as always at center stage. His microphone twirls may be smaller, but his full dynamic range and power haven’t seemed to dim one iota.

On song four the band took an amazing journey back to the early years: “The Kids Are Alright,” “I Can See for Miles,” “Pictures of Lily” and “My Generation” all sounding as urgent and resonant as ever, still bristling with their youth without ever sounding false, yet savory in their maturity, capped by an enriched syncopation driving one of God’s own grooves on “Magic Bus.”

Then two from Who’s Next: “Behind Blue Eyes” with its yin/yang of beautifully anguished loneliness and raw, pulsing passion, followed by the similar duality and pummeling verses of “Bargain.” Only two songs from Quadrophenia: “I’m One,” again, with its melded polar opposites that no other superstar rock act comes even close to deftly combining into one composition without even a hint of contradiction, so truly human in that range of emotions. And “Love, Reign O’er Me” with its soaring and surging grandeur that shows how rock’n’roll can be high art yet keep its balls and toughness.

Keith & John were not just there in images but spirit/Photo by Daniel Carney

Keith & John were not just there in images but spirit (Photo: Daniel Carney)

Mid-show numbers like “Join Together,” “You Better, You Bet” and “Eminence Front” that never rated high on my list of Who landmarks sounded like they could be the greatest songs ever as they played them.

Then as the show barreled well into its second hour, a mini-suite of operas: First, Townshend’s earliest stab at grand ambitions and musical complexity, “A Quick One (While He’s Away),” reaching an utterly organic apotheosis that brims with the genius of Townshend’s talents and aspirations, yet still funny, cheeky and rocked up with a swift kick. The core of Tommy was the ideal next segment: “Amazing Journey,” “Sparks,” “Pinball Wizard” and “See Me, Feel Me.”

The set ended with the one-two killer punches of “Baba O’Riley” and “Won’t Get Fooled Again.” Does rock ‘n’ roll ever get better than this? Not that I’ve ever heard.

“So what’s the encore?” Scott asked as the band took its bows. “‘Long Live Rock!'” I said with a shrug as if no other song made sense even if many others did. The lights came up; no encore. Yet not even the slightest ripple of disappointment in the crowd.

Yes, I so wished for “5:15” in the Quadrophenia segment. I would have loved to hear “Anyway, Anyhow, Anywhere,” “I’m Free,” “Call Me Lightning,” “Let’s See Action,” “Pure and Easy,” even “Real Good Looking Boy” or “Be Lucky.”

But after more than two hours and 22 songs of rock ‘n’ roll at its absolute finest, all my desires we’re fulfilled and then some. I was sated and in a state of euphoria.  The Who delivered even beyond the passion and transcendental life force their music deserves in what could be their final bow. (Though how when they are this great can the f-f-fade away just yet?) I paid $199 to get down on the arena floor close enough for the music to hit me in the gut and surge through my body, soul, spirit and imagination. I call that a bargain, even at three, four, five times or more the price, the best I ever had in my nearly 50 years of live rock ‘n’ roll shows.

The Stones will be out on the road too this summer, and in their maturity are well atop their game. But here in 2015, as much as I almost never make such grand pronouncements, there is only one World’s Greatest Rock ‘n’ Roll Band – the bloody Who! Long live rock indeed.

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Rob Patterson
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